Sir Nicholas Bacon


Sir Nicholas Bacon

Francis Bacon’s father, Sir Nicholas Bacon (28 December 1510 – 20 February 1579), was the very model of a modern Tudor statesman. He came from nothing and rose to the loftiest heights of power. He was born into the sturdy yeoman class in Suffolk, where the Bacon tribe was thickly established on well-managed farms.

Sir Nicholas’s father left his farm to become the sheep-reeve for the abbot at Bury St. Edmonds. The sheep-reeve is the guy who counts the sheep and keeps all the sheep-related records. Sheep were the principal economic resource of Suffolk in those days, so there would have been plenty of records. He was literate, therefore; also honest and not stupid. But not quite a gentleman. Reeves were like foremen in our times; at the top of the working class, but distinctly blue collar.sheep

Nicholas attended the Abbey school at Bury. Tittler tells us that in those days (around 1519), “Bury was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the kingdom, and had one of the few libraries which could boast of more than two thousand volumes — and that at a time when the University Library at Cambridge counted barely three hundred in its care” (p.19). There was a stroke of luck for a clever and aspiring lad! Nicholas made the most of that opportunity and won a Bible scholarship to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. Cambridge was the place to be for progressive intellectuals in the 1520’s. Nicholas was true to his school throughout his life. He endowed six scholarships for poor boys to attend Corpus Christi College.

Education was his means for climbing the social ladder, like others of the “new men” of that era. The Tudors preferred educated, competent administrators who owed their status to their monarch, rather than taking their chances with a fractious nobility. Bacon was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1532. Here again he excelled, rising rapidly from inner barrister (student) to utter barrister (having passed the bar). He became a bencher — one of the governors of the Inn — in 1550 and participated in the management of the Inn thenceforward. He was one of the prime movers in restoring the great hall. He built a house for himself and his sons catty-corner across from the said hall. Francis lived in that house for many years.

Bacon’s first government post was with the Court of Augmentations. This court was formed by Henry VIII after the Dissolution “to preside over the confiscation of Church properties, to administer the transfer of such property, and to deal with the dispossessed residents” (Tittler, p. 26). They were busy as beavers, rearranging the property maps of England. A great job for a man on the rise! Not only do you get gifts and emoluments from those whose property you’re examining, you also get the inside scoop on tasty parcels coming up for sale. Bacon began investing in real estate, starting with lands in Suffolk. His first family seat was established at Redgrave. He ended up owning lands in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, London, Middlesex, Somerset, and Dorset.

His next job, granted in 1547, was Attorney for the Court of Wards and Liveries. This is the court that managed suits relating to minor heirs of persons who die in possession of lands owing knight service to the Crown. Both children and lands passed into royal custody until the heirs came of age. That little interval could be very, very profitable, because the guardian got control of the property, which meant he or she could invest it, harvest woods, perhaps, and take thick slices of profit as an executor’s fee. The guardian also got to arrange the heir’s marriage, often for a handsome fee. Bacon bought a few wardships for himself during his tenure, but generally discharged his duties with a rare eye to the well-being of the wards. He earned a reputation for fairness and competence that stood him in good stead when the regime changed.

And boy, did it change. Edward? No, Mary! Protestant? No! Catholic! The world tumbled end over end between 1547, when Great Harry breathed his last, and 1558, when Elizabeth took the throne. Bacon managed to hold on to both his head and his job. And his lands. And his reputation. He deserves applause for that feat alone. It didn’t hurt that his brilliant wife, Anne, got herself appointed as a Gentlewoman of Queen Mary’s Privy Chamber. That duty must have sorely singed her Puritan sensibilities. The Bacons kept their religious beliefs to themselves and spent a lot of time at their home in Redgrave studying the classics.

Elizabeth knighted Sir Nicholas and appointed him Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He earned this plum mostly on his merits, but also through the influence of his brother-in-law, William Cecil. The two men were close friends and allies from Henrician days. Nicholas was an exemplary Lord Keeper, by all accounts. Fair, efficient, reform-minded, but not radical. He was renowned for his oratory; the Lord Keeper represented the Crown’s views to Parliament, among other duties.

(The difference between a Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and a Lord Chancellor is that the latter is a peer: a title nobleman. Elizabeth was parsimonious with her peerages, so Sir Nicholas never got one. Francis did, from James I, who passed out peerages like party favors. “Is that my gift? Would you like to be a viscount?”)

Sir Nicholas married twice. He married Jane Fernley in April, 1540. Jane was the daughter of a prominent member of the Mercer’s Company.  Mercers were importers and exporters of wool and fine fabrics. William Fernley, Jane’s father, was a connection of Thomas Gresham, who married Jane’s sister in 1544. Thomas Gresham was a financial wizard who advised three monarchs and founded the Royal Exchange. Nicholas and Jane had six surviving children, three boys and three girls. I’ll write about them in a later post.

Jane died in 1552. Busy Sir Nicholas needed a wife to help him with his children and manage his household. He married up, socially, snagging a daughter of Anthony Cooke. Anne Cooke got her first post last week. That marriage strengthened his bond with William Cecil, who married another of the intellectual Cooke girls, Mildred. Anne bore him two more sons, Anthony and Francis.

Sir Nicholas remained Lord Keeper until the day he died. According to Francis, his death was caused by a chill taken from falling asleep in front of an open window. Nicholas’s health was never strong. He suffered from gout and stone (kidney stones), insomnia, and hardness of hearing. He got fat in his later years. Stress eating, what do you bet?

He left his oldest sons quite well off financially, with substantial estates. He also provided fairly well for Anthony. Only Francis, who had barely turned 18 when Nicholas died, was left without property. The battle over Sir Nicholas’s will deserves a post of its own.

Sir Nicholas Bacon was long remembered by his contemporaries and the next generation as a model statesman, revered for his integrity, his intelligence, and his eloquence. He left those things at least to his youngest and brightest son.

Source: Robert Tittler. 1976. Nicholas Bacon: The Making of a Tudor Statesman. Ohio University Press.

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